Sooo… you wanna play those really, really long notes that go on forever, along with the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Courtney Pine, Sonny Rollins, Kenny G, Colin Stetson, Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis and going as far back as Harry Carney, Duke Ellington’s baritone specialist, or... ? You need to learn circular breathing in music - and I’m going to explain how.
Circular Breathing in Music
The concept is simple - it may require a little practice but once you understand, it's actually not so complicated. You may have heard about the method of blowing a steady stream of bubbles into a glass of water - I know I had many times, but I was still none the wiser about how to do it. But fortunately, while I was studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, a visiting Italian flautist (whose name I don’t remember) explained the technique in a simple manner.
Spoiler alert - you are not actually breathing in and out at the same time. What you are doing is using your cheek muscles to push out a small amount of air that you have in your cheeks, while you breathe in through your nose. That realisation alone was vital for me in taking out the mystery of the technique.
How To Practice
- Learn how to fill your cheeks with air:
Fill your cheeks with air - puff your cheeks out and hold your breath.
Use your fingers to physical push your cheeks in to push the air out of your mouth - you don’t actually breathe out!
Do the same but using just your cheeks to push the air out.
- Push air out and inhale at the same time:
Fill your cheeks with air.
Again, use your fingers to push your cheeks in, but this time breathe in through your nose at the same time.
Do this again… and maybe again…
Do the same, but using your cheek muscles only
Nearly there… you’ve just been practicing the tricky bit, the bit where you actually stop supporting with your diaphragm and have to maintain the pressure just by squeezing the air out with your cheek muscles, while you sneakily breathe in through your nose.
- Repeat Steps 1 & 2 but add your instrument
Just use the small bit of air in your cheeks to make a short sound
Once familiar with that, get used to breathing in through your nose for that short moment
- Now put it together!
Play a long note
while you still have air, fill your cheeks
push out the air with your cheeks
breathe in through your nose and then return to exhaling normally
continue ad infinitum
Basically as you blow, you fill your cheeks, then breathe in through your nose as your cheek muscles push the air out - and then back to normal exhalation. No mystery, just a simple physical process. It may take a while to get control but understanding the process makes it easier to practice.
In practice, I have found that at times certain notes and/or instruments are easier to do circular breathing with than others. Notes within a comfortable range are likely to be better as the embouchure will be more stable. I still struggle with flutes as my embouchure shifts too much to maintain a constant tone. Oboe or trumpet can be easier, due to much greater back pressure, which means the small amount of air stored in the cheeks can maintain a tone for longer while breathing in.
But why do it?
Well, that is a whole other conversation really… I’ll offer my personal perspective.
I was inspired at an early age by Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s masterpiece album “Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle” where he plays for the entire second side of the LP in one breath, as well as his classic version of “Old Rugged Cross” on “Blacknuss”. Kirk’s overt use of circular breathing definitely makes sure you are aware of its use. Same when I saw Courtney Pine. It can be a fantastic technique for building up tension and is great for conveying a strong sense of virtuosity and showmanship. But it can at times be used for the “trick” rather than for musical purposes. Like any technique, if it is overdone it will lose its power, but used sparingly it will have great effect.
There is something about musical phrasing that relates to breath - I remember pianists and guitarists at VCA getting told to physically breath when playing to help give their phrases more shape. Circular breathing can be responsible for some musical travesties! The problem can arise when the technique is used for its own sake, rather than for musical purposes.
Though in contemporary improvised and composed music, circular breathing does allow for pushing the technique to its extremes, allowing for musical expression that does push outside usual limits. Musicians such as Evan Parker, Ned Rothenberg and more recently, Colin Stetson, explore the technique and possibilities of circular breathing to extremes, helping them create musical concepts and personal styles that expand our experiences of sound.
My use of circular breathing depends very much on the musical context I am performing in. For a straight up jazz gig, I’ll occasionally stretch out my phrases a little longer than normal, maybe I might try and play through an entire form in one breath in a way that is overtly exploited. But I prefer to use it in a natural way, rather than play it as a “party trick”. It's just nice sometimes to hold on to things longer than expected - like a suspended note that tantalisingly resolves after the chord change.
In a more experimental/contemporary setting, I often use circular breathing to break the conventional expectations of a woodwind instrument, where phrases are usually defined by distinct phrases. Much contemporary music, especially electronic, is often continuous and textural in nature. Trying to emulate and explore these concepts on a wind instrument is a challenge that I enjoy exploring and circular breathing helps me to bring more traditional instruments into current musical experiments.
You should use circular breathing in whatever way you like - be it artistic, a show-stopping stunt, or just to help you get through those extra-long phrases in one breath. But its not a hard technique, once you understand the process. And like any advanced technique, mastery over it doesn’t mean you have to use it - but the work put in to learn it will contribute to greater control and awareness of your overall playing.
Enjoy those extra-long tones!
A few other examples of circular breathing: